Of “Cultural” Crimes and Denials
A zealot Muslim father killed her daughter in Toronto in a rage over her refusal to wear hijab. Racist Muslim-phoebes had a field day; Islamist leaders denied that this tragedy had anything to do with Islam; and many Canadian feminists, human rights activists, and the left stayed silent in order not to be accused of Islamophobia or racism.
Media reports and commentaries, ranged from a few unconditional condemnations of this horrific act of patriarchal violence and the cultural and religious beliefs behind it to a cautious disapproval, insisting that this is only another example in the general pattern of violence against women. Still others identifying this as an isolated case, warned us not to jump into any conclusions.
No doubt, violence against women is a cross-cultural social problem rooted in patriarchal control of women. In this case, it used religious justification, Islamic moral codes of conduct, to take life out of a teen who had rebelled against the forceful imposition of a dress-code that her father saw as central to his faith.
The fact is that in Canada we are facing a very serious and growing problem of the rise of religious zealotry. Canadian multiculturalism, failing to combat racism and Muslim-phobia, is gradually moving towards adopting faith-based multiculturalism, allowing the formation of cultural ghettoes immune from social and legal scrutiny against violations of human rights. This politics serves the interests of conservative Muslim leaders. Enjoying the formal recognition by different levels of government, they openly reject civic norms of conduct, and preach their obscurantist and rigid understanding of “piety” and “modesty” to an audience that struggles to adjust to life in the diaspora.
The comments made by some religious leaders in a press conference, in the aftermath of Aqsa Pervez’s murder, were quite instructive. They indirectly supported the act by warning that culture cannot supersede religion and urged that their followers should “convince” their daughters to wear hijab.
Aqsa Pervez’s case represents a revealing example of the lives of many children of Muslim immigrants who came to Canada predominantly in the 1990s, and now are coming of age. The vast majority is inevitably influenced by the dominant Canadian culture and behavioural patterns. Many parents have no problem with this and adopt a healthy mix of broader cultural practices and those of their own. A growing number of families, frustrated by the difficult conditions of life and influenced by imported orthodox Imams, however, venture the impossible task of replicating their past way of life in their country of origin. They try to force their own “choices” on their children. Many of these young Canadians, particularly young girls and women, live a double life and have to hide their true feelings and submit to their parents’ imposition.
Aqsa Pervez shed the mask of compliance with the Muslim womanhood her father wanted her to wear, hence the harshest imaginable punishment in his hands.
The Canadian society and public policy makers urgently need to understand and appreciate the remarkable cultural diversity of the people who come from Muslim-majority countries and their divergent views about Islamic traditions and degrees of their religiosity and secularism. Islam itself has had different readings from almost the very beginning with a strict and rigid literalist reading on the one hand and a rationalist interpretive reading on the other. For centuries the latter was the dominant perspective for the vast majority of Muslims. It is only in recent decades that political and economic failures, imperialist policies towards Muslim-majority societies, authoritarianism, and the unresolved Palestinian issues, have given prominence to the rigid totalitarian ultra-conservative Islam.
Taking this voice as the voice of Muslims is a fatal mistake with dire consequences. Worse, wittingly or unwittingly, bowing to their demands in the name of respecting their cultural heritage is to give up on principles of citizens’ equality before the law and the hard-won norms of women’s rights. Still worse, tip-toeing around harmful cultural practices as some left and feminists are doing is tolerating for Others what is intolerable to “us.” It promotes patriarchal control over women who have had a misfortune of not being born white and Western. It is to deny the agency of millions of women (and men) who in all Muslim societies, without exception, have launched the most remarkable challenge to the misogynist, conservative interpretation of Islamic legal and moral traditions. Abandoning one’s racist gaze of national and cultural superiority could be done without adopting a hands-off approach.
All levels of government in Canada need to recognize these facts and abandon their habit of listening only to the most conservative voices within the large Muslim population. Family could be, and often is the site of most serious repression, and violation of rights in this “private” domain often occurs with active participation of mothers.
Government’s policy in this and similar cases is very important as it should be both punitive and educational. Its firm stand will show what is not tolerated and tolerable in this country, regardless of what sacred cultural and religious values are at issue. It also sends a strong message to family members, Muslim preachers, and those community organizations that support zealotry, about the consequence of their acquiescence, preaching and advocacy.
Haideh Moghissi is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Study at York University, and the author of the award winning, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism and the editor of three volume reference Women and Islam.
Shahrzad Mojab, is Professor and Director of Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, and the co-editor of Violence in the Name of Honour: Theoretical and Political Challenges